Intermittent fasting has become incredibly popular in the last decade. The nutritional approach is touted as the best thing since sliced bread, and countless people recommend it.
But is intermittent fasting good? More importantly, should you use it as a skinny fat person who wants to lose fat and build muscle?
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What Is Intermittent Fasting, Anyway?
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a nutritional approach that dictates when to eat and fast. Unlike traditional diets that restrict specific foods, the idea behind IF is to avoid all calories at particular times. In other words, IF doesn’t change the what, only the when.
You can follow a few fasting protocols:
1. The 16/8 Method
You have to restrict all food intake for 16 hours per day and consume your calories in an 8-hour window. For example, you can skip your morning meal, eat at noon, have your dinner at 8 pm, and fast until noon the next day.
2. Alternate Day Fasting
A more advanced fasting approach where you fast for 24 hours every other day. For example:
- Monday - normal day of eating
- Tuesday - fasting until the evening
- Wednesday - normal day of eating
- Thursday - fasting until the evening
And so on.
3. Eat Stop Eat
Brad Pilon is the person behind this fasting approach, and he’s designed it to be a non-invasive way of controlling your calories and losing weight. The idea with the protocol is to follow a regular eating schedule for six days and do 24 hours of fasting once per week. For example, you eat three square meals from Monday until Saturday, fast all day Sunday, and only have dinner.
You can also introduce a second day of fasting after a while. For instance, you can fast on Wednesday and Sunday.
4. One Meal a Day (OMAD)
OMAD is a popular dietary approach claimed to help you burn fat. The idea with OMAD is simple: fast for 23-23.5 hours each day and consume only one meal.
Why Would Someone Do Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting offers several benefits, which have made the approach popular in recent years.
1. Easier Fat Loss
The primary reason why people do intermittent fasting is for fat loss. However, it’s important to note that IF is not special, and fasting daily doesn’t ensure that you’ll shed fat. Your total daily calorie intake is still the determining factor (1).
With that said, intermittent fasting can be beneficial for fat loss because it makes caloric control easier. Consider this example for a 2,000-calorie fat loss diet:
- Regular eating schedule - you eat three 600-calorie meals and a 200-calorie snack
- 16/8 fasting schedule - you eat two 800-calories meals and a 400-calorie snack
Your calorie intake is similar in both conditions. But fasting allows you to have larger and more satisfying meals that help you control your hunger more effectively.
2. Possible Health Benefits
Researchers have long speculated that caloric restriction extends one’s life, which makes sense. For example, caloric restriction allows you to maintain a healthy weight and prevent health issues that result from being overweight or obese. Research also finds that regular fasting improves various health markers (2).
Plus, given people's growing average calorie intake and steadily rising obesity rates, introducing some form of fasting can’t hurt.
Simplicity is perhaps one of the most noticeable benefits of intermittent fasting. Instead of getting out of bed and worrying about what to eat, IF gives you a few hours to focus on work, finish some tasks, and eat afterward.
For example, I enjoy waking up in the morning, having a cup or two of coffee, doing some work, and having my first meal around noon. I don’t fast for fat loss. I simply enjoy not having to worry about food as soon as I get out of bed.
Fasting has also helped me stick with the necessary caloric restriction for weight loss. If you struggle with hunger while dieting, fasting could be helpful.
Intermittent Fasting For Fat Loss: Is There a Benefit?
The closest scientific answer we have to the question comes in the form of a study from 2016 (3). In that experiment, researchers had 34 resistance-trained subjects that were randomly assigned to one of two groups:
- Group 1 - a regular eating pattern with three meals (morning, noon, and evening)
- Group 2 - a time-restricted eating pattern with three meals inside an 8-hour window (from 1 pm to 8 pm)
Both groups did eight weeks of dieting and a standard resistance training program. Group 2 consumed an average of 181 fewer calories daily than group 1 (3007 vs. 2826). Other than that, both groups followed similar macronutrient breakdowns (53-54 percent carbs, 24-25 percent fats, and 21-22 percent protein).
The subjects were tested for measures, such as:
- Fat and fat-free mass (via DEXA scanning)
- Total and free testosterone
- Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)
- Total cholesterol
- Blood glucose
Unsurprisingly, after the experiment, group two had lost more fat and saw more significant drops in testosterone, leptin, and IGF-1 levels.
A quick side note: I saw several people misinterpreting the results from this study, claiming that time-restricted feeding was superior to a regular diet for fat loss. It’s important to note that the TRF group consumed fewer calories over a two-month span, which explains these results. Had both groups consumed the same number of calories, they would have likely lost the same amount of fat.
If anything, the study suggests that intermittent fasting is a viable addition to a fat loss plan. But the caloric intake and macronutrient breakdown primarily determine our outcome. So, you can try fasting for fat loss. I recommend it because it can make dieting easier because it allows you to have larger and more satisfying meals.
Intermittent Fasting And Muscle Growth: Can We Build More Lean Tissue?
Another common argument favoring intermittent fasting is that it can lead to superior muscle growth. The idea doesn’t make sense because fasting is the opposite of muscle growth. While fasting, you promote catabolic activity (breakdown) inside your body. Meaning, you’re more likely to lose fat and lean tissue when not consuming any calories.
Of course, the answer here is more nuanced because your overall nutrition and training program play a role. Consuming enough calories and protein allow you to optimize muscle gain, provided you also train consistently.
So, the question is, would fasting help you gain more muscle than following a regular eating pattern? I’m inclined to say no because I can’t imagine a scenario in which not eating for 16+ hours per day would lead to elevated muscle protein synthesis, superior workout recovery, and growth.
Aside from eating enough calories and protein, research suggests that splitting your protein into four equal doses might optimize absorption and use of the amino acids (4). The primary roadblock with IF is that you have to consume all of your daily protein in a shorter period then spend a lot of time without consuming any amino acids.
The only practical scenario where intermittent fasting might be beneficial for muscle growth is if a person uses it to control their calorie intake and prevent overeating. For example, if you need to eat 3,500 calories per day to gain weight and muscle but routinely eat 4,000+, fasting could be the practical solution to stick with that calorie goal more easily.
So, you can fast if you wish but don’t expect it to help you gain more muscle in the long run.
Skinny Fat And Intermittent Fasting: A Match Made In Heaven?
Intermittent fasting is by no means mandatory for skinny fat folks. If you’re following a regular eating schedule and are wondering if you’re missing out, don’t. IF won’t help you build more muscle or lose more fat, but it can be beneficial in a practical sense.
First, doing IF makes it easier to stick with calorie restriction without feeling overly deprived. For example, most people can skip eating in the morning and instead have a cup or two of coffee or green tea. They can then have their first meal at noon, eat a snack in the afternoon, and have dinner in the evening. Consuming your daily calories in a shorter period would allow you to have larger and more satisfying meals.
Second, fasting introduces some simplicity because you don’t have to worry about eating from the moment you wake up. Instead, you can start the day with work or school and eat your first meal a few hours later.
How to Start Intermittent Fasting (And Keep Your Mind Off Food)
The simplest way for most people to start intermittent fasting would be to skip their morning meal and eat at noon. Dinner would be at the same time (7 to 9 pm), followed by fasting for another 15-16 hours until noon the next day. Many people don’t have much of an appetite in the morning, anyway, so fasting suits them well.
But what if you struggle with fasting until noon? Some black coffee or green tea can help as both beverages can blunt your appetite. For instance, you can have a cup of black coffee an hour after waking up and follow that with some green tea an hour or two later.
Alternatively, you can start pushing back your breakfast over the course of a few weeks, giving your body time to adjust to your new eating schedule. For example, if you currently eat breakfast at 7:30 am, it could look like this:
Week 1 - breakfast at 8:30 am
Week 2 - breakfast at 9:30 am
Week 3 - breakfast at 10:30 am
Week 4 - breakfast at 11:30 am
It might not be the practical approach for everyone, given work obligations and such, but it does work. Alternatively, you can keep your breakfast at the same time but gradually make it smaller:
Week 1 - 700-calorie breakfast
Week 2 - 500-calorie breakfast
Week 3 - 300-calorie breakfast
Week 4 - a fruit for breakfast
Week 5 - skip the morning meal
Is Intermittent Fasting Safe, And Are There People Who Should Avoid It?
Intermittent fasting is safe for most people, and no research suggests adverse effects, especially with a moderate approach, such as the 16/8 protocol. Still, it never hurts to consult your doctor, especially if you have a health condition.
For example, if you’re prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or have diabetes, intermittent fasting might not be suitable for you. Avoid fasting if it leads to symptoms such as lightheadedness, shakiness, anxiety, or an irregular heartbeat.
1. Strasser B, Spreitzer A, Haber P. Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Ann Nutr Metab. 2007;51(5):428-32. doi: 10.1159/000111162. Epub 2007 Nov 20. PMID: 18025815.
2. James B. Johnson, Donald R. Laub, Sujit John, The effect on health of alternate day calorie restriction: Eating less and more than needed on alternate days prolongs life, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 67, Issue 2, 2006, Pages 209-211
3. Moro, T., Tinsley, G., Bianco, A. et al. Effects of eight weeks of time-restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance-trained males. J Transl Med 14, 290 (2016).
4. Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 15, 10 (2018).